With wholesale changes unlikely, Blackhawks need to look within
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The most frustrating thing about the Blackhawks’ sputtering start to the season — they fell back to .500 with Saturday’s 7-5 loss to the Devils — hasn’t been the putrid power play or the frequent first-period flops. It wasn’t the monthlong scoring drought they finally snapped out of.
It’s how little there is to do about any of it.
Do the Hawks need another top-four defenseman? Absolutely. But name a team that couldn’t use one — and try to find one who’s already available in November. Never mind all the no-trade clauses on the Hawks’ roster.
Do the Hawks need an injection of speed and energy from Rockford? Maybe. But whom do you send down, who can clear waivers, and who can really make a dent?
Do the Hawks need a new voice in the room? That’s quite a stretch. And good luck finding a better coach out there than Joel Quenne-ville, the second-winningest coach in NHL history. (And to be blunt, if the Hawks really need help getting motivated at the NHL level — again, unlikely that it’s come to that — then they’re already lost anyway.)
No, if the Hawks are going to get out of this middling, maddening mess, if they’re going to pull themselves out of these doldrums, it’s going to have to come from within. Patrick Kane needs to hit superstar mode and put the team on his back. Duncan Keith needs to start carrying the defense. Brandon Saad needs to keep banging on the door. Jonathan Toews needs to get back to his early-October levels. Ryan Hartman needs to shake off his sophomore slump. Anton Forsberg needs to find his inner Scott Darling.
There’s still talent, and there’s still hope. But here are three steps the Hawks can — and should — take to get themselves back on track.
1. Put Alex DeBrincat on a line with Nick Schmaltz and Kane, and let them run wild.
Quenneville has tried just about every line combination except for this one, the one that was utterly dynamic in camp and early in the preseason. DeBrincat has been largely wasted on grinder lines with Lance Bouma and Artem Anisimov all season. But the 19-year-old has finally gotten to play with some playmakers, and suddenly he has three goals and an assist in the last two games.
Quenneville, perhaps wary of a line with so little size, has been reluctant to put the trio together, simply saying, “It’s an option.” Well, it’s long past time to use it. The Hawks need to get some swagger back, and with Schmaltz shaking off his post-injury doldrums and flashing his speed down the middle again, DeBrincat and Kane can do it. Let your playmakers make plays.
2. Send Jordan Oesterle down to Rockford and bring up Vinnie Hinostroza.
This isn’t the first time Quenne-ville has carried eight defensemen, and it simply doesn’t work. Oesterle has played just four games. The Hawks are understandably worried about another team claiming him off waivers. But the Hawks need speed, and Hinostroza has it.
He also has seven goals and eight assists in 14 games. So he has earned another chance. A fear of losing your No. 8 defenseman shouldn’t get in the way of that.
3. Keep it simple.
Other than the DeBrincat-Schmaltz-Kane line, the Hawks need to dumb it down a bit at both ends of the rink. Even Saad and Toews can take a page from Bouma and Tommy Wingels and play a quick, straight-forward game. No dangling, no risky passes. Just quick exits, direct entries and relentless forechecking. The Hawks can’t keep up with faster teams in transition, so playing a safer, more defensive and, yes, more boring style is the answer. Right now they’re firing and giving up 34 shots per game. That wide-open style won’t work.
In an underwhelming division and an unintimidating conference, all is not lost. The offense finally came around this past weekend, just as the Hawks insisted it would. Now it’s time to figure out everything else, before it’s too late.
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.